H.E.L.P. receives McMillen Family Foundation grant to address the growing problem of alcohol and drug abuse among older adults. Through a follow-up grant received in May 2019, H.E.L.P. is pleased to be able to continue the partnership with the McMillen Family Foundation begun in April 2017 with the development of a pilot substance abuse educational outreach program for seniors. The goal of the program is to alert seniors and their families to the growing problem of alcohol and drug abuse among older adults. Over the past several decades, physicians have increasingly prescribed seniors with pain medications to address chronic pain, without adequate medical follow-up, and many end up addicted. Seniors need to be alerted to the dangers of taking these drugs and advised to not just take the prescription because it’s part of the checkout process from the hospital. There is also the need to be aware of additional potential side effects stemming from the interaction of their regular medications with the use of alcohol or drugs.

A recent study found that 15 percent of seniors were prescribed an opioid for pain when they were discharged from the hospital, and three months later 42 percent were still taking the pain medicine. One in three Americans who have taken prescription opioids for at least two months say they became addicted to or physically dependent on the medications, according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. In the past 20 years, the rate of hospitalization related to opioid overuse has quintupled among seniors.

As our country has been dealing with an overwhelming opioid epidemic, concerns have primarily focused on young people buying drugs on the street. However, the nation’s elderly have a problem as well. The fact that relatively few seniors end up in rehab is due to a combination of factors, according to Mel Pohl, medical director of the Las Vegas Recovery Center. He concludes that seniors have grown up in an era where drug addiction and alcoholism were evil, so they don’t seek help, particularly from an in-patient facility. Also, some rehabs are not equipped to deal with the complex medical problems common among older people. Another problem is that addictions have been misdiagnosed as dementia. Often two or three weeks into treatment a family will see their loved one “return to their old self,” and they realize that it was addiction, not dementia.

One of the fastest growing chemical dependence problems in the nation is substance abuse among seniors. This problem is expected to get worse as baby boomers get older. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that those age 65 and older now make up 13% of the population, an increase of 15% since the year 2000. In many of the cities in the South Bay, the senior population is nearing 20%. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in acute-care hospitals the rates of alcohol-related admissions for the elderly are similar to those for heart attacks. Government statistics have shown that 17% of older adults are believed to misuse alcohol or prescription drugs, and widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the country. The prevalence of problem drinking in nursing homes is as high as 49 percent in some studies. Surveys indicate that 6 to 11 percent of elderly patients admitted to hospitals exhibit symptoms of alcoholism, as do 20 percent of elderly patients in psychiatric wards and 14 percent of elderly patients in emergency rooms.

Alcohol abuse can put the elderly at risk for internal bleeding, heart problems and difficulties in breathing. Alcohol-related illnesses are a major cause of premature death. Among persons older than 65, moderate and heavy drinkers are 16 times more likely than nondrinkers to die of suicide. Less than half of alcoholics over 65 are diagnosed, a Penn State study has shown, because often the telltale signs of alcohol dependence are masked by patient denial and seeming good health.

Alcohol abuse also contributes to increased risk of falls, as well as emergency hospitalization for adverse alcohol and drug events in older Americans. Alcohol abuse can be especially dangerous when combined with the use of prescription drugs. According to a November 2011 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, among adults 65 years of age or older, 40% take 5 to 9 medications and 18% take 10 or more, and older adults are nearly seven times as likely as younger persons to have adverse drug events that require hospitalization. Alcohol can make a medication less effective or make it harmful to the body, and exacerbate some medical conditions     

Studies indicate that elderly persons with alcohol and drug problems are at least as likely as younger persons to benefit from alcoholism treatments, which is very encouraging. An important part of H.E.L.P.’s education and public outreach program for seniors and their families is to alert them to the potential problem of addiction and ways to avoid it. In addressing opioid use for pain, we advise seniors that it is their body, to take charge of it, and push for alternatives at all cost. They can try non-pharmacological options such as acupuncture first, or prescription drugs like Gabapentin that are designed for long-term use to address chronic pain. If absolutely necessary, seniors should use the smallest effective opioid dose possible and be regularly monitored by their physician. Likewise, if they need to go on pain medications after surgery, they should be warned to get off of them as fast as possible.

Please visit our website page on substance abuse for further information and resources on this subject.

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